For Christians, the Bible is a seriously important text. Some of us can’t go a day without reading it. Others don’t think we’re really being the church unless we study it. For many of us, it is a cornerstone of our faith. In fact, you might not think a sermon is worth listening to unless it is an explicit exposition of the Bible. Others might very well think their cell isn’t really holy unless it’s a Bible study. The Christian faith and the study and understanding of the Bible, for some people, have become synonymous. Without one the other cannot exist.
This is a complicated premise because the Bible was first widely distributed in the 1450s with the advent of one of the most influential inventions ever: the Gutenberg printing press. Before that Christians relied on the oral tradition to learn about the Bible. It was in fact written to mainly illiterate people, and today in many countries, large swaths of the population are illiterate. So if the cornerstone of the faith is the study and understanding of a complicated text, one must wonder how people who cannot read or even have a cognitive limitation follow Jesus.
So let’s think about the Bible and find out some answers to the questions that are premises offer. I want to write about the Bible because if we don’t grow our understanding of it as we grow as people, it might be left behind in our faith. We might stop reading it and stop responding to God.
What the Bible is not:
- The Bible isn’t totally free from error. Now some might think that contradicts Paul’s words in 2 Timothy, but I’m not sure it does. If we need the Bible to be perfect for it to be authoritative or inspired, we might run into problems, because there are definitive errors in the scripture. Sometimes the geography is wrong, other times we might find grammatical errors. One of the reasons why it is beneficial to believe that the Bible can be both authoritative and not perfect is because it actually firms up the foundation on which we believe it and use it. If it’s assembled on the house of cards of being perfect what happens when your undergrad humanities professor points out a problem in it? Does your whole faith topple? It’s important for beliefs to not be rigid so they bend before they break.
- The Bible isn’t an instruction manual. Sometimes it seems like it contradicts itself. If you assembled James, John, Paul, and Peter in the same room and asked them some basic questions about how to follow Jesus, they might come up with different ideas. I think that diversity is OK, mainly because we are following the entirety of its narrative, not just an individual book. It won’t give you clear answers for many of life’s questions, but it is unquestionably useful for a Christian. Just because it isn’t a straightforward textbook doesn’t take away from its power. Moreover, just because the Bible contains something does not mean we should do it. Saying that something is “biblical,” isn’t akin to saying it is the truth, right?
- It is not the only way that God reveals himself. It might be the best way, but there are other ways that God speaks today. Those ways don’t necessarily compete with the Bible, but they fulfill the text. They add more to it. Certainly, the Holy Spirit, the body of believers, and Creation itself also reveal the God to us. As Christians, we don’t believe that the Bible is the complete revelation of God, because Jesus is. John calls Jesus the Word of God. Jesus fulfills the Law and reconciles all things, he overcomes the world, and he transforms us. The Bible is powerful and meaningful, but it is not an additional member of the Trinity.
Why should I read the Bible?
- If we want to follow Him, reading the Bible is the best way to know about Jesus. The Gospels are simply the best account of Jesus’ life in existence. There is nothing more accurate or more reliable. So if you want to know how to follow Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are good places to start.
- And on top of that, the text itself is powerful because of its longevity. It’s the best-selling book ever and the most-printed book ever. You’d have to really arrogant to just ignore the text. Although the postmodernist’s grandiosity might be enough to warrant that. It’s shaped our faith for over thousands of years. People have been reading, using, and inspired by it for a long time. It is at least humble and prudent to read it.
- I believe God’s hand was instrumental in creating it. I think the same word Paul gave Timothy about the Old Testament applies to the New Testament. It might take some testing on your own to get to this belief, or might just do it on faith, but I think studying the Scripture will illuminate God’s presence in your life. I think God influenced the people who wrote the Bible and I think plainly following it will show that to us. I think it’s OK to be humble enough to receive a truth we don’t understand and let God move through it.
How we should read the Bible.
- Through a lens of Jesus. First and foremost, I think the Bible will be hard to read if we are not relating to Jesus and being full of the Holy Spirit. People study and deconstruct the Bible all of the time; it’s harder to read the Bible if we aren’t intending on building up the Body through our reading. If we aren’t willing to be moved by the text, we will fall short. We should really see the entire world with a Jesus lens—why not the Bible? Does that mean our reading won’t be “objective”? Presumably, but it also means our reading won’t be colored by our own biases. I’d rather a Jesus lens than a Jonny lens.
- As you are able. Since Jesus has redeemed me too, my lens isn’t so bad anyway. And for all of us, we don’t need a seminary education, special commentaries, or even the best translation to read the Scripture. I think Jesus measures us where we are, and so I think it’s totally appropriate to the read the Bible as you are able. It’s not a simple book, and it’s not necessarily easy to understand or to apply, but read the Bible as you can. Pray about it, ponder it. Write down your thoughts. Your thoughts and interpretation and application matter by themselves.
- As a group. I don’t think understanding the Bible stops and starts with you. In fact, the fact that we can read it on our own at all is a blessing and is fortunate. But, generally speaking, the text was intended to be read and studied in a group setting. So our understanding of the scripture is best illuminated in a group context. We learn about it at PMs and cells and everywhere else. We discern and interpret together, as a body, and your voice matters in that.
- Over a lifetime. Finally, read it over your life. It will take a lifetime of study to really get it. What we thought ten years ago is probably different than what we think now and I think that’s a good thing. Be OK with changing and growing with your faith. As you outgrow it, don’t be afraid to grow more with it.
At the heart of this discussion is the idea that no matter how much we “get” the Bible and understand it, if we don’t apply it to our lives, we lose. If we can’t apply Jesus’ teaching and the wisdom of the ages in the Bible, we are really cutting ourselves short. Even the greatest Bible scholars can repel people from the faith. If we don’t actually get a real application out of what we are reading, it is so limited. It might be a nice thought, but it is not transformative.